Opinion: Nuclear technology will be a key piece of Canada’s energy future

General view of the Pickering Nuclear Power Generating Station, April 17, 2019.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

John Gorman is the president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association.

Undisputedly, nuclear must be in the energy mix for Canada to reach its greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets. Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan recently said as much when he stated that the federal government has “not seen a credible model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear.”

It’s about time. Nuclear power is a clean energy. It does not emit carbon or pollutants that harm human health and the environment, and it’s the only energy source that delivers carbon-free, reliable heat and electricity around the clock. As a result, new nuclear – specifically, small modular reactors (SMRs) – are uniquely positioned to decarbonize our extraction industries, provide heat and power to First Nations communities, and work in tandem with innovations in renewables.

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Of course, there will be critics. We often hear that investing in nuclear represents “putting all of our eggs in one basket.” We hear that nuclear technology is too far off in the distance to be useful now. We hear that there are worries about how we can manage the byproducts safely. But these concerns are not always rooted in facts, science or reality.

To begin, renewable energy sources can and do work in partnership with nuclear. The issue of climate change is so colossal that we must leverage a multitude of tools in our box to work together. This includes finding the right complementary energy mix for Canadians, and the right balance in terms of regulation and policy. Around 16 to 19 per cent of our energy comes from renewables. There is plenty of room to grow, but we cannot rely solely on renewables down the road – and I say that as the former president and CEO of Canadian Solar Industries. We must also bear in mind that around 80 per cent of energy demand today is met by fossil fuels and gas – a demand that simply cannot feasibly be met by renewables alone, without nuclear.

Fighting climate change is a journey, albeit one we must accelerate. But new nuclear technology is around the corner, with initiatives in Russia, China, Argentina, Sweden and the U.S. attracting investment and approaching completion. Here in Canada, 12 projects are going through review and approval. We are on the brink of activating the next generation of new nuclear through SMRs with a projected nine-year roadmap. That may seem like a long timeline, but for context, Canada’s plan to phase out coal takes place over 31 years. Our emissions goals targets for 2030 and 2050 will not happen through quick fixes. Delaying efforts on next-generation nuclear technology because it would take too long is a nonsensical argument: We need to act now to productively advance these capabilities. Global investments in wind and solar over these last two decades is what enabled us to benefit from that clean technology today.

We also sometimes hear detractors making a case that we shouldn’t focus on new nuclear due to the investment required. But all innovation requires investment; that’s the nature of social-economic progress, and has been for centuries. At the same time, the government has pointed to the potential economic contribution of SMRs, with a conservatively estimated domestic value of $5.3-billion between 2025 and 2040 ($150-billion globally per annum). It’s an industry that not only solves an enormously expensive problem – the consequences of the climate crisis could wreak potentially massive costs – but would also drive economic prosperity for Canada.

Finally, there’s the issue of waste – a result of all energy sources, even wind and solar farms, given their finite life cycles. Nuclear, however, is the only energy industry that accounts for all its byproducts. While some industries send waste into the air, the nuclear industry’s by-products are safely stored or recycled, managed and monitored in a highly regulated environment. Canada is recognized as a world leader in nuclear fuel management; scientists and experts visit to learn from our processes, which are built on 65 years of experience. In that time, no member of the public has ever been harmed by the storage or transportation of radioactive by-products. Looking to the future, nuclear – unlike any other sources of energy – also presents the opportunity to recycle its waste products. This means it may be possible that waste currently being held in repositories could be converted into fuel in the future.

Climate change is a complicated issue that requires a holistic and balanced approach. It will demand a united effort to move down the path of a cleaner oil and gas industry. And that collective journey on the part of Canadians should be undergirded by facts and science.

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